There is no better modern film that captures the gaze better than Portrait of a Lady on Fire. The film is cinematic excellence that plays with the power dynamic between two main characters, Marianne (Noémie Merlant) and Héloїse (Adèle Haenel), and their budding relationship.
One scene stands out in the entire film as a pivotal moment in the two women’s relationship. As Marianne attempts to paint Héloїse, the two exhibit how closely they’ve observed one another, and the female gaze transforms the tangible tension into a moment of will they, won’t they.
Thanks to a Tumblr page that translated Portrait of a Lady on Fire’s screenplay into English, Lessons from the Screenplay breaks down how Sciamma included the camera work and pacing into her screenplay to create a visual and verbal representation of the shifting power between observer and the observed:
It’s all in the screenplay
Every filmmaking technique used in this scene is written into the screenplay. Sciamma considers all of these techniques while writing out the 10 lines, nine cuts, four shots, and two camera movements that are accompanied without any music. The conventional structure used along with simple yet effective camera work enhances the narrative.
The scene starts with the setup. Marianne initiates the conflict by stating, "I can’t make you smile. I feel that I manage it but it’s like it disappears.” This statement causes Héloїse to force a smile which creates tension between the observed and the observer.
Marianne then shows off her power and gaze as the observer by listing all of Héloїse’s ticks, using the rule of threes—a tool that suggests things happen in threes that plays to the emotions of the characters. Marianne adds insult to injury by stating, “Forgive me. I would hate to be in your place.”
Héloїse is quick to tell Marianne that they are in the same place. She calls Marianne over to stand next to her, and says, “If you look at me, who am I looking at?” This is the midpoint of the scene, and the switch of power begins to take place. Héloїse then uses Marianne’s own tactic against her, listing the ticks that Marianne has to break down her defenses.
The climax comes when Marianne stands in silence and decides how to react. The resolution, unsatisfying as it may be to the viewer, is when Marianne walks away and back to her easel.
Although the scene is a simple one when described through dialogue, the camera works just as hard to bring that shift in power to life.
Adèle Haenel as Héloïse in 'Portrait of a Lady on Fire'Credit: Pyramide Films
The camera movement
The camera works in bringing the female gaze to life on a metaphorical and textual level. The scene as described by Sciamma is “...an absolutely pivotal scene. It’s the scene which marks the shot/reverse shot dynamic of the film. What’s the power of the person who’s watching? Who is watching whom?”
At the start of the scene, Marianne is framed in a medium close-up shot, shielded by the corner of the easel as she watches and observes Héloїse. Héloїse is framed in a medium shot which allows the viewer to gaze at her from the perspective of Marianne. She is vulnerable in this shot as nothing protects her from our stare.
At the midpoint in the scene, Marianne steps into Héloїse’s frame. The camera then pushes into a close-up of the two women as Héloїse breaks down Marianne’s power. This camera push emphasizes that Héloїse has the power now, demanding that the camera focuses on her gaze on Marianne. The tension builds between the two women, which causes Marianne to flee from the frame, escaping the struggle for power as the observer.
The camera stays on Héloїse as Marianne leaves the frame, and all the audience can hear is Marianne retreating behind the safety of her easel. Unfortunately, she is not safe from the gaze of Héloїse and audience; the camera frames Marianne even further away than Héloїse was at the start of the scene, showing that she is now the subject under observation.
For the first time in the film, the audience is seeing Marianne from Héloїse perspective. We can feel the power shift between the women, and from Héloїse's point of view, Marianne looks delicate.
Noémie Merlant as Marianne in 'Portrait of a Lady on Fire'Credit: Pyramide Films
Pacing is key
Dynamic pacing has the power to direct the audience’s attention to a certain character and affect us emotionally. Maybe it makes us feel comfortable or uneasy. Most films use a score to direct the audience on how to feel, but Portrait of a Lady on Fire does not have a score. Any music that is in the film exists in the world of the film, so how does Sciamma create such brilliant pacing?
To put it simply, editing, performances, and blocking creates the pacing that elicits an emotion out of the audience.
All three of these are used in this scene between Marianne and Héloїse to elevate the storytelling experience. Silence is heavily used and emphasized by the actress to punctuate important beats, and the confidence behind their words as actions and weapons create a push and pull that draws the audience in closer.
The screenplay suggests these long pauses between the actress’s delivery using action lines on the page that describe the performance.
Action lines are typically uncommon in scenes like these, and the actresses and director are left to interpret what the action between the dialogue looks like. Sciamma purposefully placed action lines to create long beats that elicit emotion from the characters and audience.
The editing is also important and is also suggested by the screenplay. The editing cuts back and forth between both performances as desired, showing the audience both women. It is at the midpoint that the editing is reversed to show the switch in power. When Héloїse asks for Marianne to come to her, the camera stays on Héloїse as we listen to Marianne walk across the room. Sciamma creates the sound design in the number of steps that Marianne takes; five steps. Those five steps leave the audience listening for that last step—a kiss, a retreat, an intense action that breaks our attention. Instead, we are stuck on Héloїse’s perspective until the audience is observing Marianne.
Even the blocking of the women being near each other shows authority. Héloїse sits like a queen as she commands Marianne over to her. Héloїse delivers her lines with confidence and creates desirable tension between the two women. Originally, the screenplay stated that they kiss at the moment of heightened tension, but it was changed. Instead, this scene breaks down that the power the observer has over the observed isn’t about domination. Instead, the women are trying to find a balance that allows their desire for one another to blossom.
'Portrait of a Lady on Fire'Credit: Pyramide Films
Writing a groundbreaking screenplay can be difficult, but it is not impossible. Keep in mind how the techniques of filmmaking can be used to tell the story without using dialogue. Try to suggest the pauses, and who and how the viewer should be looking at each character while creating your next screenplay.
Which element are you most excited to focus on for your next screenplay? Let us know in the comments below!
Source: Lessons from the Screenplay